She was a dreamy kind of person. And when melancholy wrapped her in a silk blanket, she would sit down at her desk, take an empty score out of the drawer, look out at the window, with questions suspended in the air: Why? How? What next? And occasionally Fanny Mendelssohn would compose a piece of music capturing her dreams, her musings, here longings and her hopes such as those recorded by the Luxembourg pianist Béatrice Rauchs in 1997. Five pieces come from Fanny’s unpublished material, compiled under the manuscript number MA ms. 44, one has been published as part of her op. 2.
As for Fanny’s pieces, they are lovely miniatures, each of them. Rauchs calls them “Characterstücke” (character pieces). This term denotes a short lyrical piano piece, simple in its structure with an emphasis on expressivity. They are the instrumental counterpart to the “Kunstlied” (art song). Fanny did not seem to have given the pieces any concrete title, that would give us a clue about what exactly she intended to express, so we need to look at the moments in Fanny’s life when she composed the different pieces to see what might have inspired her.
Five unpublished pieces
The earliest piece, Allegro agitato in G Minor (H-U 300), goes back to May 1836, the Andante in G Major (H-U 301) followed in July of the same year. The latter is the only piece of the six that was published during Fanny’s life. More than a year later, in November 1837, Fanny wrote the Largo con espressione in E Minor (H-U 322). In June 1838 the Andante con moto in E Major (H-U 330) and the Allegro molto vivace ma con sentimento in E-flat Major (H-U 332) followed, while the latest, Allegro moderato in B Major (H-U 339), saw the light in January 1839.
Reconstructing the context didn’t seem too difficult once I had identified the catalogue numbers of the pieces. Fanny’s diaries and her correspondence with Felix have been published, and the author of Fanny’s works catalogue, Renate Hellwig-Unruh, has provided a timeline. Now, let’s see: In May 1836 Fanny travelled from Berlin to Düsseldorf for a music festival and she attended the premiere of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Paulus”. The summer of 1836 was a time full of inspiration, she wrote more than just the Andante. She mused about having her works published, something to which Felix objected.
In 1837 Fanny wrote several songs inspired by Heinrich Heine’s poems. During the summer the question of publishing her works resurfaced, but Felix is adamant. Immediately before she finished the Largo, she had visited Felix and his wife Cécile in Leipzig. June 1838 is remarkable in two respects: Fanny’s husband Wilhelm is away in England, but her beloved brother is in Berlin. Not exactly revealing, is it? Fanny’s diary is not helpful either as the years between 1835 and 1839 are missing. This begins to resemble detective work! Perhaps her letters?
The subjects on Fanny’s mind in 1836 are her longing for Felix, a lengthy technical discussion of certain aspects of the “Paulus” and Fanny’s creative process. In October, Felix asks if she has written anything new, and without hesitating Fanny forwards several piano pieces. “Some are outstanding”, he comments, “I thank you a lot for the great joy they gave me. It is rare that new pieces please [me] all at once.” And with regard to publishing her works, she writes in November: “I take a neutral position, but [my husband Wilhelm] Hensel wishes it. You are against it […] but this is important for me.” There are no letters from November 1837, nor from the summer of 1838, as Felix and Fanny stayed together in Berlin. The last step then, the beginning of 1839. But again, I hit a dead-end. The letters deal with everyday life matters, not with music.
So where does it leave us? It leaves us with a very simple solution. We quickly forget about all this academic stuff, we listen to Fanny’s music and let our own dreams float through the air. My all-time favourite are the Allegro moderato in B Major and the Largo con espressione in E minor. A little drama, a hint of melancholy, very gentle, full of delicacy. Fanny would have approved of our approach, and that’s all that matters.
© Charles Thibo